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Two Films Reviewed: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Two Popes

I’ve recently watched two films: one (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) disappointed me unexpectedly; the other (The Two Popes) impressed me unexpectedly. What follows isn’t perhaps so much a review of both but an outline of my personal taste in films — make of it what you will.

I had high expectations of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Others had recommended it, and the title seemed to indicate that it might be the kind of quirky wartime comedy/drama which managed to blend together the seriousness of the Second World War (by basing itself in the only British territory to be occupied by the Nazis during that war) with some unconventional or eccentric humour and perhaps an unusual or even outlandish screenplay, producing what I hoped would be a little classic. Hence my disappointment: it turned out to be prosaic, predictable and poorly written. The screenplay was ordinary and laboured; the actors worked hard to bring life and depth to a plodding script, but ultimately failed. Yes, the background scenery is beautiful; yes, the presence of Nazis adds some frisson, as it might be expected to do — but my goodness, how much does an audience need to have the plot points telegraphed to it? Juliet Ashton (played by Lily James, brilliant in The Dig but given far too little to work with here), the painfully two-dimensional author from London, travels to Guernsey on a whim to meet with a man with whom she has been corresponding — already a clue to future romance — and then ‘accidentally’ meets him as she arrives on the island, without realising who he is at first. But the audience knows, and the director might as well have tattooed ‘Love interest’ to his forehead. In their initial encounter, James looks as though she was told ‘act awkwardly upon meeting Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman)’, though she has no motivation to do so except that she is blatantly going to fall in love with him (also without believable motivation) later.

Standard archetypes are present: Tom Courtenay barely breaks a sweat playing the slightly doddery old postmaster; Penelope Wilton, perhaps the best actor in the piece, manages to inject some realistic emotion into her part as the bereft old lady. Adams struggles to bring any third dimension to his lover role; the rest of the cast are acting by numbers for the most part.

In brief, the film is heavily trope-dependent — we hate Nazis, we expect the single woman to break off her engagement and end up with her rustic correspondent, we know that all will end happily because 'it’s that kind of film' — and possesses no life of its own. I think my main disappointment is that the title hints at more: this could have been much quirkier, much more challenging, far more interesting. It was a missed opportunity to tell the real story of the occupation of the Channel Islands in a new and gripping way. Instead, it doesn’t even tell the simple love story well. I actually broke off watching the film and was not going to waste my time with the second half, but I like to complete things once I’ve started and so sat through the second hour, but I needn’t have bothered, it didn’t get any better.

On the other hand, I had low expectations of The Two Popes. It had sat in my films category for a while and I’d ignored it, despite Anthony Hopkins being one of my favourite actors. I just couldn’t see how the relationship between two very old men was going to sustain my interest over two hours, even though they both were popes. To my astonishment, I was gripped from the opening scene right to the end.

The film was adapted from the 2017 play The Pope, written by Anthony McCarten and resolves around the pivotal meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio around the time when Benedict announced his resignation as the leader of the Catholic Church, something no Pope had done since the thirteenth century. Exploring the possibility that Bergoglio’s desire to retire as a cardinal was connected to Benedict's resignation yields a far more intriguing story than one might expect.

The film smoothly arcs between the past of Bergoglio in particular and the present day of the film, 2013, with the screenplay beginning in 2005 at the papal conclave following the death of Pope John Paul II. Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) places second to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) — Ratzinger ascends to the papacy, assuming the pontifical name Benedict.

A few years after his ascendancy, Benedict’s Church is hit by scandals, and Bergoglio, who has always been a critic of the direction in which Benedict was steering the Church, travels to Rome from his home in Argentina to get permission from the Pope to retire. But the pontiff simultaneously summons Bergoglio to a meeting to interrogate and challenge his reasons for retiring, and the resulting interplay between the men — both played beyond brilliantly by the master actors Hopkins and Pryce — is fascinating not only because of the conflicting theology and philosophy of the two, but because of their differences as people.

This would probably have been gripping enough for me, but director Fernando Meirelles diverges at key points into a series of flashbacks into the early life of Bergoglio which open the audience up to the terrible and harrowing history of Argentina. The flashbacks are so authentically done that they possess a real emotional power of their own, quite apart from the tense scenes between Hopkins and Pryce. Pryce plays the charming populist with apparently no effort at all, while Hopkins absorbs his character so thoroughly (as he usually does) that he vanishes into Benedict completely. Both characters reveal gaping vulnerabilities: Bergoglio is burdened by severe guilt for his ambiguous role in Argentina’s political upheavals, while Benedict is trapped by his own introversion and scholarliness into a deep loneliness at the top. Both become fully human; both are affected profoundly by the absolution they grant each other.

Arguably, their confessions to each other seem to do little to redress the crimes which surround them, which have real victims in the real world, but as a piece of drama this works and works well.

So I can highly recommend The Two Popes, while advising people not to fall for the charming title of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.


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